Amid the sort of hoopla usually reserved for the arrival of an American president on Air Force One, British Airways Flight 2012 – dubbed the custard-coloured comet by Boris Johnson – touched down at RNAS Culdrose in Cornwall at 7.25pm carrying its flickering cargo.
The flame, lit by the sun’s rays in Greece a week ago, was transported home in four lanterns that occupied the best seats in business class, seats 1A and 1B. The Princess Royal was relegated to 1F, across the aisle from the unique hand-luggage she collected in Athens on Thursday.
David Beckham, was three rows back, one behind Sebastian Coe and London mayor Boris Johnson, but took a leading role in the ceremonies that, after 10 years of planning seven years of hype, started the final 70-day countdown to the Games.
The Princess carried the lantern from the plane with Coe and Beckham and was greeted by deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who will have appreciated the plane’s livery if nothing else.
After the spare lanterns were removed by the Metropolitan Police officers who will follow the flame’s every step in the UK, a torch was lit from the lantern and passed to Beckham, who lit a cauldron at the air-sea rescue base.
On Saturday morning the flame’s 8,000-mile journey to Stratford will begin in the hands of triple Olympic champion sailor Ben Ainslie at Land’s End, with the forecast set fair for at least a few hours.
The flame left behind a very wet Athens, drenched by unseasonal rain that endorsed the torch’s emerging credentials as a rain-bringer.
The downpour abated long enough to allow the ceremonial handover to Princess Anne take place without an umbrella on Thursday, but returned on Friday as Beckham, the real star of the British delegation, visited a school in the capital.
The former England captain’s involvement in 2012 has riled some, and his premature knighting at the handover ceremony raised a laugh – even Beckham admitted to smiling at the announcer’s gaffe.
But the value of ‘Sir David’s’ megawatt celebrity cannot be underestimated.
There is no-one else in British sport, not Sir Steve Redgrave or even Coe, who could get an Athenian school jumping with excitement in a downpour.
The Beckham effect works on adults too and London 2012 is hoping his involvement this week, and inevitably later in the relay, will help stoke enthusiasm.
Beckham is well aware what he has brought to the project but is offended at suggestions that his selection for the football squad would be based on anything other than merit.
“I’m very proud of my achievements for my country and I have never played in an Olympic Games before so I would love to, I would love to be part of the team,” he said.
“But whenever I have been asked about shirt sales or filling stadiums. It has always felt it is disrespectful. Throughout my career I have been pretty successful, I’ve played for some pretty big teams, represented my country quite a few times, and played for managers who worked without sentiment.
“I don’t want to be picked on a shirt sale or as a stadium-filler, I want to be picked for what I can bring to the team.”
Beckham’s enthusiasm for the Olympics is genuine. Were he to miss out when Stuart Pearce selects his squad, he will still be involved. He said yesterday he would be looking for tickets for him and his sons for the 100 metres, among other events.
The Beckham’s will doubtless find that easier than the millions who relied on the ballot, but Coe hopes the arrival of the torch will bring the Games to those who missed out on tickets.
London 2012 claims the torch will pass within 10 miles of 95% of the UK population on its 70-day journey to Stratford. Coe believes its arrival signals the real start of the Games.
London’s third Olympics have been 10 years in the planning, and Coe has been their figurehead for eight.
His sense of excitement is palpable, and he says it is matched around the country. Locog have forecast that 9 million people will watch the torch, drawn in part by the fact that the relay runners have been drawn from local communities.
“The arrival of the torch has a really big effect. I went to the test event we did with a cardboard torch with no flame between Leicester and Peterborough, and in Melton Mowbray, they were three- or four-deep on the pavement. So I know it will happen,” Coe said.
“People are going to come out and see their local coach, their local teacher or policeman. There is an emotional connect that I am not sure that all torch relays have got.
“The toughest part of my job has been the UK-wide engagement. At the beginning it was hard, but the great thing now is you go back to places and you can see what people are doing to get involved. We are not out there proselytising any more. This is a truly national engagement.”